Vaccines are here, but are we really safe from COVID-19?

Rapid spreading virus variant found in South Africa worries experts.

Many mutations have arisen since the first COVID-19 reporting in China, but a new strain that has emerged in South Africa, also known as 501Y.V2, is proving to be far more transmissible. Although scientists do not find the strain to be deadlier, they predict a more serious and frequent infection resulting in more fatalities.

The South African variant receives its name from the N501Y mutation. This mutation is found in the spike protein which the virus uses to gain entry into body cells.

South Africa variant increases the chance of reinfection and may reduce the effectiveness of the current vaccines (Source: Arizona Republic).

South Africa announced the variant was rapidly spread in three main provinces: Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal. South Africa has over 8,500 people hospitalized with COVID-19, surpassing their previous high. As a result, South Africa has taken on stricter lockdown restrictions such as the closure of beachers.

A recent upsurge in positive COVID-19 cases in South Africa. (Credit: Worldometers)

“It is still very early but at this stage, the preliminary data suggests the virus that is now dominating in the second wave is spreading faster than the first wave,” said Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairman of the government’s Ministerial Advisory Committee.

The South African virus is also more difficult to track because standard PCR tests, a worldwide standard to diagnose COVID-19, are unable to distinguish the South Africa strain between other strains, such as the UK strain. Only genetic sequencing can be used to give any traces of the variant so far. No cases of the South African Variant have been reported in the U.S. yet, but that may be due to the low number of positive test samples that could be sequenced.

Swabs about to be processed by PCR tests. (Credit: Press Association)

The mutatiation could also pose a great threat to COVID-19 antibody treatments. Many people are concerned about whether the COVID-19 vaccines developed last year will be effective against this new South African strain. 

“After spending a long period in quarantine and finally having the vaccine out, to hear there is another variant scares me of what my next year may look like,” said Izzy Frankel, a junior at North High. “No one knows if the vaccine works on this new mutation and it makes me think of all the other possible variants from other regions.”

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that there is no evidence showing the strain alters the effectiveness rate of vaccines. Health experts are primarily concerned that the South African variant may be more resistant to antibodies that help people fight the virus if administered early.

“It could be having some impact on protection for the monoclonal antibodies and perhaps even for the vaccine. We don’t know that,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

This new strain’s transmittable nature is dangerous and possibly the beginning of unprecedented transmissions, which can allow for greater mutations. Regardless, for the smooth rollout of administering COVID-19 vaccines, people will need to continue practicing safety measures worldwide.